KABT Fall Meeting – Vote for Breakout Sessions

July 22, 2014 in Events, KABT Meetings, KABT News

This year at the 2014 Fall Conference we’re trying something new, we want to have two breakout sessions where participants get to decide what they would like to talk about! Maybe it’s using technology (like BYOD) in your classroom, moving from a traditional grading system to a more standards-based one, or something else, the topics are limitless and we’re looking for your input!

If there’s a topic you want other to vote on that you’ve had to type in, put it in the comments so I can add it to the existing list.

So, what topics would you like to discuss during the breakout sessions at the 2014 KABT Fall Conference? I’ve invited you to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference Community Session Voting. To fill it out, please visit: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1jxrCgGmCK78d0ykrafV8Ps8AyMjLUaw_KYav3K5HYg8/viewform?c=0&w=1&usp=mail_form_link

KABT Fall Meeting – Call for Presentation Proposals

July 20, 2014 in Events, KABT Meetings, KABT News

Have something to share with the KABT community? Maybe it’s a new lab or activity that focuses on student collaboration? Maybe you’re looking for potential collaborators on a teaching project of yours? We invite you to come share at the 2014 Fall Conference on September 13th at the KU Field Stations. This year the focus will be on “Collaboration”.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a first time presenter, first year teacher or seasoned veteran. We’re looking for a variety of sessions with the central focus of collaboration, either between teachers, students, or a mix of both. If you’re unsure, submit your session idea and we can work with you as well. We want new faces, especially yours!

I invite you all to fill out the form KABT Fall Conference 2014 Presenter Application. To fill it out, please visit:


STEM Discussion Event – 7/16/14

July 9, 2014 in Events, KABT News

The Kauffman Foundation is hosting a series of casual education meetups in the month of July to provide a setting to discuss current teaching innovations.  Next week I get to present, and I’ll be leading a discussion of how to encourage greater penetration of inquiry methods both in STEM classrooms and also beyond typical STEM settings (non-STEM disciplines and elementary classrooms).  The sessions have been interesting and thought-provoking thus far, and it’s been especially valuable to get “outside the garden” of life science teachers with which I typically interact.  I would love to have contributions from anyone interested and willing to join.  Plus free coffee, so awesome.


Where:  Kauffman Foundation (4801 Rockhill Rd Kansas City, MO 64110)

When:  July 16th from 8:00a – 9:00a

Carpool:  Anyone traveling from the south (Olathe) shoot me a message if you want to carpool/ride with me.


Hope to see you all there!

Flipping and Going In Circles

June 20, 2014 in Labs, Teaching Resources

Moving student learning out of the classroom will require better formative measures of competency and content acquisition.


Summer is the time for reflection in the life of a teacher.  This year I stumbled upon something interesting; I found myself at a nexus of several teaching styles:

  1. I teach a general biology course in a traditional time-allocation model.
  2. I teach an AP Biology course with significant aspects of a flipped classroom.
  3. I teach a Biotechnology program that is primarily student-directed.
  4. I participate in a master’s program that is 100% online learning.

In having access to a representative cross section of the current time-usage models, I noted that the primary struggle in moving learning outside the classroom walls and into a flipped or online model is continuing to obtain evidence of student learning without regular direct student interaction.

Assessment is Hard.

At first this observation is not particularly noteworthy, because all teachers must measure student learning frequently.  Informal assessment of student progress occurs constantly in a traditional classroom.  Bell work assesses retention from previous lessons.  Prelabs assess existing knowledge and preparation for an experience.  Teacher monitoring and student conversations provide information on class progress during an experiment.  Summative tasks such as writing samples and future applications provide guiding information moving forward.

The problem in moving to a flipped classroom or an online class (which is really just flipping a classroom 100% of the way) is losing access to all of the easiest methods of assessment.  Bell work is no longer sufficient for assessing extended learning occurring since the last meeting.  Informal conversations provide some information, but are not enough evidence alone to ensure an activity occurred outside of class time.  This leads to some of the greatest complaints from students in online/flipped environments.

Too Many Students' Online Course

Too Many Students’ Online Course

 If a Student Learns Alone in an Empty Room, Does She Make a Sound?

Online classes are notorious for superficial assignments, rote repetition, and unbalanced workloads.  These problems arise as supervisors clamor for evidence to support grades.  A professor or teacher can show a dozen forum posts about inquiry as evidence the students learned about inquiry.  The difficulty, as any teacher can tell you, is learning requires more interaction with the material than simply making required posts on a topic.

It seems too many flipping teachers are relying on superficial tasks (read-quiz-repeat or two-dozen-papers-done) because the most valuable learning behaviors are difficult to measure.  A class can read a passage and have a meaningful discussion and a teacher can know those things happened because they witnessed them in a room.  How else can you ensure such behaviors happened online without required forum posts?  As a result, online or heavily flipped classrooms revert to all the same learning behaviors seen in classrooms 100 years ago.

This problem leads to lots of “evidence”, but little legitimate learning!  We must as teachers have the courage to provide tasks to students that promote critical thinking and student ownership, and spend our time finding measurements that are strong evidence of a learning trajectory to reach a single point, rather than many superficial measurements along a linear path.

Do Digitize Strong Practices, Don’t Force Digital Practices

The solution to real online learning is two-fold:  make quality classroom experiences accessible to students alone at home, and measure their competency on those tasks after-the-fact.

The first struggle is one not easily solved.  There exists an experimental design course in my master’s program, and I dreaded this course.  I didn’t fear it for difficulty, but for quality.  How could forum posts alone help me refine my experimental design skills at a graduate level?  The answer was the obvious one, it couldn’t.  Our professor was very clear, we will be designing our own experiments at home and reporting our results.  I know other teachers in virtual environments tackle the same problems.  For teachers looking to flip our classrooms, we must be brave enough to create authentic tasks for our students to tackle on their own.

I would argue the best way to accomplish this is to identify the most fertile areas for flipping.  Prelab work and readings are obvious, but lab work can also be done at home at times.  Don’t flip your electrophoresis lab, but flip the prelab preparation so they can ensure they can run their gels long enough in class.  Don’t flip your photosynthesis lab by making it a dry lab over break, flip it by finding a new way to measure photosynthesis progress like biomass accumulation in various amounts of shade or temperature.  Don’t skate around the problems by simply providing tasks that are easy to design, get creative and solve the REAL problem.  Eliminate the busy work and allow more time for your students to focus on what’s left.

Flipping Pic 1

Excel file to report a full lab in AP Biology.

The second issue is evidence for the final course marks.  Half this problem is solved with quality flipped tasks.  The observation I would make is that we must find ways to take measurements that provide greater description for past learning.  A forum post is a fairly superficial measurement at face value.  A photo diary of the experimental process provides the same verification of an activity, but cuts the extraneous time investment to a minimum.  A well-crafted graph can be reported which provides evidence of data collection and analysis in a product that can be rapidly evaluated by the teacher.  The ultimate message is, “Increased workload does not a rigorous course make, and often it is its undoing.”

Michael Ralph is a teacher making mistakes at a prodigious rate in the hopes he will run out of errors sometime before he retires.  He’s also tweeting more now @ralph0305.

Recollections from the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge Field Trip

June 3, 2014 in Field Trips, KABT News, Nature

As one of the trip coordinators for this year’s field trip, I must say that even though I was a bit stressed when our journey began and not everyone decided to take advantage of the free van transportation, it didn’t take long for me to relax as I watched the participants striking up conversations with each other in the field.

Our first stop was at the Headquarters of the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge where we met with Kim Martin, Federal Law Officer at the refuge.  She showed us a 12 minutes video introducing us to the history and growth of the national wildlife refuge system.  She then talked and answered questions about the Marais des Cygnes refuge and her duties in federal law enforcement.

After our introduction, we check 15 small mammal traps that had been baited and set the afternoon before.  The traps were set in a recently burned restoration area, a non-burned restoration area, and a non-burned area that within a remnant tallgrass prairie.  We had no success in either of the restorations but captured a single hispid cotton rat and lone deer mouse in the prairie remnant.  While traversing the prairies the young naturalist in our party enjoyed netting the numerous great spangled fritillary butterflies we observed pollinating a stand of dogbane.

From there we travel to another prairie restoration along Yardley Road to search for Mead’s Milkweed.  This federally endangered plant is known to exist naturally at three locations on the NWR property.  The plants we saw were individuals that had been planted into one of their restorations.  Participants were able to find a couple of plants that were in full bloom.

From there we returned to Linn County Park for lunch and a short siesta.  When finished, we returned the NWR and headed to Stick Pond adjacent to the photoblind to check 4 turtle traps that had been baited and set the evening prior.  Three of the traps were hoop traps and one was a cage trap.  Each were baited with creamed corn and mackerel.  Interestingly enough, three of the traps had not a single turtle while one of the hoop traps contained 13 turtles of three species – 1 large snapping turtles, 1 painted turtle, and 12 large sliders (2 males and 10 females based on fore fingernail length).  It took us awhile to safely position the snapping turtle for removal from the trap and get a few pictures.  You’ll have to check out the KABT Facebook site for images of the turtles.  I had my hands full and didn’t want to get my camera wet.


After our interactions with the chelonians, we traveled a wooded area surrounding an abandoned coal mining operation.  We were in search of the only stand of swamp white oak in the entire state of Kansas.  We read the informative email from MdCNWR Biologist, Tim Menard, which contained the following information –  “As you walk west from the state line parking lot, the swamp white will begin to appear before you get to the old service road, and definitely before you get to the flowing creek.  many of these trees are forked at the base.  Then you can see many more as you walk to the northwest.  The leaves look like chinkapin (which are just on the other side of the hill).  However, look for last year’s acorn caps with the long stem attached.”  We successfully found the trees.  At this stop we also witnessed a ringneck snake and the caterpillar of the pipe-vine swallowtail butterfly.  Chris Ollig from Blue Valley North High School introduced the group to dendrochronology and the appropriate use of the increment borer.




Next, we traveled to Turkey Foot Pond, a man-made pond resulting from previous coal mining activities.  There we checked four additional turtle traps as well as surveyed for freshwater mussels known to occur at the site.  As the name implies, Turkey Foot Pond has three fingers.  On our descent to the western most finger, we encountered a lush stand of equisetum.  Two young snakes were observed – a plain-bellied water snake and a northern water snake - and a horsehair worm was discovered swimming in the pond along the shore.  We found a number of mussels the most abundant of which was the three ridge mussel.  The identities of the other mussels encountered awaits verification by mussel experts.  In the second finger we searched, we captured two sliders in one of four traps deployed.  Check out the aged slider that doesn’t look like a slider anymore in the images below.


IMG_2457  IMG_2480

Finally, we travelled to the Marais des Cygnes River itself to search for the mussels beds that eluded Kelley Tuel and I on our previous trip to the refuge.  The group rallied their remaining reserves of energy to make the 1/2 mile walk into the site.  Along the way a number of gravid ribbon snakes were found hanging out in a warm ephemeral watered ditch.  Most of the kids and only two adults made there way into the river.  Not thinking, I swam downstream looking for mussels and found a few weathered shells and a young slider basking on a log.  Otherwise, the kids enjoyed this final swim one of the parents of the big muddy.

IMG_2504 IMG_2509 IMG_2528 IMG_2536

On Sunday, those that were left travelled to the Smith Ranch newt pond.  We encountered a large plain-bellied water snake (check out the story on the KS Herpetology Facebook), a worm snake, and a ground skink.  None of us braved the muddy pond to seine for newts.

IMG_2545 IMG_2574


IMG_2586 IMG_2595

I will be adding some links in the future, and subsequently will be creating individual posts for some of the information that we planned on sharing but didn’t seem the time to.




KABT Field Trip Information and Draft Schedule

May 27, 2014 in Events, Field Trips, Nature

Bottomland Hardwood 950 x 348

Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge, May 30 – June 1

The link below contains the draft document for the KABT Field Trip this weekend including background, directions, maps, and a schedule of events for Friday-Sunday.  Please read it.  I will have final copies along with some instructional activities as handouts on the field trip.  The map to the KABT Campsite is accurate, and we will likely have some directional signs up in Linn County Park to help you along.  We still haven’t figured out a good restaurant to eat lunch at (there might not be one) so be prepared by bringing food for Saturday’s lunch for sure.  I am imagine we can find a place to eat dinner in La Cygnes, Pleasanton, or Louisburg.

KABT SPRING FIELD TRIP 2014_Draft_to_Share

I still have some editing of the background to do based on suggestions from the staff at the Marais des Cygnes NWR, and there may be some changes to the schedule. If you are coming down on Friday and want to help set traps, etc… please text me your name so that I can keep you informed if anything changes.  I’m at 816-804-7106.

I may upload a list of possible things to bring later but do be warned that you should be prepared for having your legs covered while walking around in the prairies and forests during the beginning of the day, etc… and then getting into the Marais des Cygnes River later. I will be carrying a backpack and wearing my swim trunks under my jeans.

It goes without saying that we will likely encounter some poison ivy and ticks during our journey.

If you have any questions about the field trip feel free to post a comment here, on the KABT Facebook, of feel free to email me.  Hope to see you all at the end of the week!

Freaky Friday

May 22, 2014 in Teaching Resources

So before I disappoint anyone you should know this post won’t be an analysis of the 1976 original or 2003 remake of this movie. Sorry. Freaky Friday was an idea I had at the beginning of last year because I wanted to have something on Friday’s that would interest students and be a “cool” way to tie together whatever we were talking about that week. When students walk in on Fridays they see a powerpoint slide with the organism’s name, Binomial name, pictures, and then facts about them. We then discuss that for a minute or so and then I have a 2-5 minute video clip about that organism too (it is hyperlinked on the powerpoint in the organism’s name). I tried to make the organism relate to what we were talking about in class. Sometimes that worked out, other times it didn’t.

Of course this wasn’t revolutionary or anything but I did have over 25% of my students respond (unprompted) in their course surveys that they Freaky Friday was one of their favorite things about class this year.

So, here’s my plug to the community: Most of these were made quickly which means that there could be factual errors or oddly worded sentences in these, feel free to revise them. ALSO, I would LOVE for others to ADD more organisms in the same format with their name, facts, and pictures (and video too if you have it). I only came up with 27 weeks worth but I know all of you out there have more organisms with great biological stories. It would be cool if we could revise/build this to become something others can use too if you’re interested. [Attached below is the powerpoint file]


KABT Summer Field Trip 2014

May 5, 2014 in Events, Field Trips, KABT Meetings, KABT News, Nature

Save the date!Mussel survey

nwrs_blueThe Summer KABT Field Trip will be held in Linn county, Kansas from May 30 – June 1.

We have lots of potential activities in the works, a few include:
* camping Fri & Sat nights

* spending time at the Marais des Cygnes National Wildlife Refuge. They are the only place in KS where Swamp White Oak are known to occur. It has some state protected amphibians and reptiles including the central newt, broad-headed skink, and smooth earth snake. They are also restoring shrub land for migratory song birds like bell’s vireo and the yellow-breasted chat.Bottomland Hardwood

* could learn about the Refuge’s bottom land reforestation efforts with the “Go Zero” carbon sequestration program, management of forest resources and endemic and protected flora and fauna, their diverse mussel beds (31 different species!), upland glade habitats and pollinators, a heron rookery, etc…

* potentially seining for Notophthalamus viridescens newts, setting turtle traps, learning tips about taking students out herping

We hope to see you there!

Your hosts,  Eric Kessler, Chris Ollig and Kelley Tuel

Finishing up the Artificial Selection in Fastplants

May 1, 2014 in KABT News

Last Fall I completed the first round of an artificial selection experiment using Fastplants similar to one described in the new AP Biology Lab manual.  I finally got around to planted, growing and scoring the second generation of seeds selected for higher trichome numbers.

Here are some of the seed pods that I collected and kept stored over the winter in a paper envelope.

photo (22)

I was able to conscript some student labor–a future biology teacher–to help planting the second generation.

photo (21)

This generation seemed to grow more slowly than the first. Today is the 14th day of growing and usually by now most of the plants are flowering. Hmmmm, I wander if the plants are putting so much energy into producing hairs that they have to slow down other processes? They certainly looked like hairier plants but honestly I forgot how hairy the first generation was.

Here’s what the plants looked like today. They not only seem to be a bit behind but they also seem to have quite a bit more plants that haven’t quite developed right. Of course, this population comes from a pretty small parent population so we may already be seeing sign of inbreeding depression—hmmm, sounds like an experiment.

photo (19)

And now for the results (just in graph form) for now. I may follow-up with more analysis later. The error bars on the bar graph represent 2 standard errors and thus serve to approximate 95% confidence intervals. Note that both distributions approximate a normal distribution so we would be safe to use parametric descriptive and inferential statistics.

Screen Shot 2014-05-01 at 12.45.57 PM

I’m not putting forth any conclusions right now but you are welcome to.


Statistics in the Biology Classroom

April 29, 2014 in Labs, Teaching Resources, Technology

Saturday at KU Edwards Campus I attended the “Statistics in the Biology Classroom” workshop, the 2nd part of April’s PD opportunities provided the KU Center for STEM Learning (under who the UKanTeach program can be found). You can find my notes, ideas, and instructions for incorporating statistics in the biology classroom using Excel spreadsheets here.

Like last time I won’t rehash everything from my notes and I think continuing a discussion of statistics in biology here on KABT as well as within the document would serve a greater purpose. Brad started the class telling a now classic story of a British woman claiming to tell whether milk was added before or after her tea and then the conversation led to how we could model this using spreadsheets. The conversation weaved its way around the AP curriculum (including which labs different stats can be used in), the sometimes over-reliance on Chi-Square as a statistical test, and how to build students conceptual understanding of stats, distributions, and p-values, without really having to “learn” complicated formulas.

So with that, what does everyone else think? How should statistics be used on biology? How does it look different vertically between grade levels? When and how should students first begin working with modeling statistics?